Backtalk

The debate over biotechnology is far from over — as indicated by the responses to “A Growing Concern,” our investigation into bioengineered crops and the future of food. Meanwhile, critical race theorist Mari Matsuda asks: To hyphenate or not to hyphenate? Plus: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pleads politics; Democrats disagree to disagree.

GENETIC PROFITEERING?

Your recent article, “A Growing Concern” (January/February), is based on underlying assumptions that I feel compelled to challenge, particularly the premise that economic interests and the public good are incompatible. Perhaps my perspective on this issue is somewhat unique since my professional career up until two years ago was in the environmental not-for-profit world. I now work for Monsanto, one of the companies you discuss in your article, and I made that shift because I concluded (and still believe) that I would be in a better position to effect positive change from within the system. I have been working on an effort within the company to drive sustainability into policy, product design, and operations.

There are enormous challenges facing all sectors of society. Our economic and industrial systems have been designed with little reference to natural systems, other than to use them as a presumably unlimited source of resources and waste disposal. The Monsantos of the world have just as much as anyone else to lose by ignoring the obvious signals that this is not a sustainable trajectory. Our focus on sustainability is premised on this concern.

If one is willing to step back from stereotypical assumptions about corporations — that they operate only according to marketplace laws that are inherently shortsighted, with no concern for social and ecological issues — and view them from the perspective that they play an important and necessary role in society, a different and more constructive perspective arises.

The design template presented by 3.5 billion years of biological history (a history rich, I might add, in random and experimental mixing of genes between different life-forms) offers a powerful model for how we can convert our currently unsustainable, inefficient linear systems into cyclical systems. We believe that society must get off the current fossil-fuel-dependent course, wherein much of the stuff we make ends up damaging the living world. We believe that a new course must be charted, where information becomes the valuable commodity, rather than materials. We believe that biotechnology is an important part of that “information economy” and can play a critical role in meeting the nutritional needs of growing populations without the associated high ecological costs of our current agricultural production systems.

Economic development and ecologically restorative systems must begin to converge rather than being at odds with each other. It’s going to take thoughtful and constructive input from all sectors of society to make that happen. You went to great lengths to present one fairly narrow viewpoint about biotechnology. I suggest the broad challenges we face warrant more careful and systemic consideration.

KATE FISH, DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC POLICY
MONSANTO COMPANY
ST. LOUIS, MO.

The EPA strongly disagrees with the allegation in “A Growing Concern” that our assessment process is in any way biased toward any particular company. The EPA has registered plant-pesticide products developed by several companies, including seed companies, and is taking steps to assist small companies and researchers to become familiar with the EPA’s regulatory system. We believe that our regulatory approach to pesticides, including plant-pesticides, is fair, equitable, reasonable, transparent, and protective of human health and the environment.

With respect to the reported failure of Monsanto’s Bt cotton to control the cotton bollworm in Texas, the EPA is closely monitoring the situation. We disagree with opinions expressed in the article that the resistance management plans were inadequate. Rather, it was the EPA’s strict requirements for such plans and active field monitoring that led to the early identification of the plant-pesticide’s failure to control the bollworm in certain areas of Texas. Monsanto has submitted a complete report of the incident to the EPA, and our preliminary analysis suggests this episode does not represent development of resistance in the pest population.

LYNN R. GOLDMAN, M.D.
ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR
ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
WASHINGTON, D.C.

The editors respond: Kate Fish’s letter seems well-reasoned and temperate enough. It’s also a spin job. However, while the corporate bottom line is not necessarily incompatible with the public good, this wasn’t a question that concerned us. We examined whether a company — in this case Monsanto — can exert undue influence over an entire scientific process, and whether that company allowed profit to outweigh the public good. In the instance of Bt cotton — one of Monsanto’s first major biotech crops — the answer is yes, at least judging from its first troublesome year.

In central Texas, the cotton farmers’ experience with the Bt seed was a season of grief. The company knew its genetic engineering might not keep the hungry bollworm off the cotton plants. Still, Monsanto told farmers not to worry. A promotional brochure read: “You’ll see these in your cotton and that’s okay. Don’t spray.” At first they didn’t — and subsequent sprayings didn’t save the farmers’ fields.

And neither Fish nor the EPA’s Lynn Goldman speaks directly to Monsanto’s powerful lobbying role in Washington. When Goldman states that the EPA is attempting to “assist small companies and researchers to become familiar with the EPA’s regulatory system,” she gives credibility to critics who charge that industry giants — especially Monsanto — benefit from the EPA’s demanding regulatory process specifically because it squeezes out smaller research firms and entrepreneurs.

And while the EPA’s pest resistance management plans may have aided in early identification of problems with Bt cotton, these plans did not address the crop’s actual failure. At press time, the EPA told Mother Jones it would hold hearings to evaluate the resistance management plans. But, according to Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the EPA also must examine the Bt seed’s inability to deliver a pesticide dose sufficient enough to stave off the bollworm and formulate a plan that would solve that problem. To not do so could have unknown and possibly harmful repercussions.

THROWING TOMATOES

A Growing Concern” performed a needed service by raising some important issues surrounding the uses and abuses of biotechnology. Unfortunately, you undermined your credibility by choosing to continue the gratuitous fearmongering that has characterized the biotechnology debate in the environmental community.

Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomato is a case in point. Your sidebar “Flavor Saved?” implied that the Flavr Savr contains bacterial genes. This is not so. The only functional difference between the Flavr Savr and ordinary tomatoes is that the Flavr Savr has had a gene removed that makes ordinary tomatoes turn to mush after they ripen. This allows Flavr Savr tomatoes to ripen on the vine and still make it to the store in one piece. Do environmentalists really prefer tomatoes that are picked, shipped green, and then “quick-ripened” with a shot of ethylene gas just before being put on supermarket shelves?

Much more sensible is the outcry over Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops. Here is a product deliberately designed to encourage more use of an herbicide of questionable safety.

Most cases are somewhere in the middle — the concerns are valid, but blown out of proportion because biotechnology is involved. For example, with Bt crops, the concerns are deceptive advertising and resistance developing from pesticide overuse — issues hardly limited to genetically altered products. The common thread tying together the problems you discussed is corporate greed, not biotechnology. And banning the latter won’t make the former go away.

JOHN H. BRANDT
OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLA.

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans, profiled in your sidebar “No Way Around Roundup,” constitute but one of many crop varieties now being genetically engineered to tolerate applications of synthetic chemical herbicides or weed killers. In fact, herbicide tolerance is the leading trait being transferred to crop plants via genetic engineering.

Particularly disturbing is the commercialization of cotton genetically engineered to tolerate the herbicide bromoxynil, which is manufactured by the French chemical firm Rhone-Poulenc. Studies show that bromoxynil causes birth defects simply when applied to the skin of pregnant lab animals. The EPA considers bromoxynil a developmental toxin, and California includes bromoxynil on its Proposition 65 list — a designation reserved for chemicals the state regards as carcinogens or reproductive toxins. Still, cotton genetically engineered specifically to promote bromoxynil use has now been sold in the U.S. cotton belt for two growing seasons.

Several years ago the EPA promised to develop a policy concerning the regulation of herbicides intended for use with herbicide-tolerant crops. To date, however, the agency has made little progress toward developing such a policy. Meanwhile, several more herbicide-tolerant crops, including canola, corn, and more soybeans, appear on the verge of commercialization.

REBECCA GOLDBURG, PH.D.
SENIOR SCIENTIST, ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENSE FUND
NEW YORK, N.Y.

DEMOCRATIC DISUNITY

I agree completely with Theda Skocpol’s call for discussions leading to a “new synthesis” within the Democratic Party (“Democrats at the Crossroads,” January/February). To be meaningful, these discussions must be conducted without preconditions. Ideas should be considered on their merits, not on the basis of their fidelity or lack of fidelity to long-established programs.

We begin with shared ends — for example, a decent and secure retirement for workers and equal educational opportunity for children. The question is: What is the best way of achieving these ends in radically changed circumstances? For instance, I recently co-authored an op-ed piece calling for experimenting with means-tested scholarships for students in failing urban public school systems. This may be a good idea or a bad idea; my point is that its merits should be determined relative to the goal of promoting more equal educational opportunity in current circumstances, not relative to a century-old conception of how the public interest in universal education should be realized. Progressives must regain the capacity to distinguish between means and ends, and they must stop raising historically contingent means to the status of inviolable ends.

The essential point is an openness to innovation in the public interest, even when it contradicts established thinking and may not serve the short-term interests of all members of the progressive coalition.

I will be interested to see whether the discussions Skocpol rightly advocates can be conducted in this spirit.

WILLIAM A. GALSTON, DIRECTOR
INSTITUTE FOR PHILOSOPHY AND PUBLIC POLICY
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND
COLLEGE PARK, MD.

Theda Skocpol argues that each of the two factions fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party can learn from the other. As co-founder of one of these factions, the Campaign for America’s Future, I agree with the idea that progressives should pay more attention to social issues such as crime and the decline of moral values.

However, given the Democratic Leadership Council’s huge financial support from corporate and Wall Street lobbyists, I don’t expect it to come around to our populist economic program anytime soon. Skocpol is properly concerned about the growing threat to Social Security, but the DLC and its think tank are eagerly seeking funding from the financial interests that are pushing privatization. And their willingness to sell out America’s families on this and other economic issues (such as welfare) makes it hard for many of us to take their posturing on “moral issues” seriously.

Clearly, our job is not to unite these two factions, but to unite working Americans — middle-class, working-class, and poor — into a movement for progressive change.

ROGER HICKEY, CO-DIRECTOR
CAMPAIGN FOR AMERICA’S FUTURE
WASHINGTON, D.C.

POLITICALLY EXTINCT

In “Basic Extinct” (January/February), Will Nixon essentially charges that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is making decisions about listing endangered species on the basis of politics. The political reality is that the FWS could not add any species to the endangered list for a full year (from April 1995 to April 1996) due to a congressionally imposed moratorium. During that time, a backlog of 243 species that had already been proposed for listing accumulated. We are still working to clear up this backlog, and we’ve had to set priorities.

There is not room here to respond to all the issues the article raised, but we would like to mention two:

(1) We examined the biology of the coastal cactus wren and found it was not a listable entity under the Endangered Species Act; a court upheld our decision.

(2) The discussion of the Barton Springs salamander failed to mention the conservation program we have put in place with the state of Texas. This conservation program achieves the same protections for the species we would have sought if it had been listed as endangered, and does so with the full cooperation of the state.

Anybody who thinks the FWS is avoiding controversial actions was not paying attention last May when we listed the red-legged frog, or when we reintroduced California condors to Arizona in December. Unfortunately, in today’s climate, virtually all endangered species decisions are controversial.

JOHN G. ROGERS, ACTING DIRECTOR
U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE
WASHINGTON, D.C.

FLAG WAIVER

It is sometimes difficult for members of my own generation of Asian-Americans to wrap ourselves in the American flag, as Bharati Mukherjee quite literally does (“American Dreamer,” January/ February). It is the same flag, after all, that presided over the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the massacre at My Lai. There can be a progressive impulse behind claiming the flag and the appellation “American,” but there is work to do before we can make either of those symbols stand unambiguously for justice.

I identify myself as an Asian-American because that designation represents a politicized pan-Asian coalition that fought for civil rights, ethnic studies, and affirmative action alongside blacks and Latinos. At other points in history, Japanese-Americans have chosen to say “I am an American,” while the legal system upheld anti-Asian land laws and while barbed wire held them interned. That was a radical act.

Today, I claim citizenship in the name of my ancestors, who have turned this soil for generations. I am an American, self-identified as Asian-American, by choice and by birthright.

MARI MATSUDA, PROFESSOR OF LAW
GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY LAW CENTER
WASHINGTON, D.C.


CLARIFICATION:

Al Franken (“Visions,” November/December 1996) asked us to emphasize that he was just one of several writers creatively responsible for Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford skits on “Saturday Night Live” in the mid-’70s.


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